There are two words particularly associated with the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible. One means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ and the other means ‘fire’. We know the wind blows due to movements in air pressure. Anyone who has seen the isobars on the weather forecast knows the direction of travel is from high to low. As it moves it refreshes, it cools and it prevents air from getting stale. It shakes things up and moves much needed oxygen around to enable us to breathe. A very strong wind can be awesome in its power – knocking over trees and buildings, whipping up waves and buffeting what otherwise seems so stable. There is something exhilarating about standing on an outcrop of rock by the seashore and letting the wind blow through you. We become aware of the awesome power of nature, of the forces that sustain life and also how vulnerable that life is when confronted by them. When the wind blows we know about it. It is a vital force for life and renewal. Whenever it blows it brings change.
One of the Hebrew words for God is ‘Elohim’. It is a breathy word. As we say it air is expelled from the lungs. So we have to breathe in in order to be able to breathe it out. In saying it we literally breathe the name of God. And in so doing we become conscious of the breath of life. This is the word used for God in the creation story at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, where God’s Spirit moves over the waters and creation is brought into being – it is breathed into being by God. The allusion is strong and powerful. The life force is the breath of God and we connect with it in becoming aware of our breathing. It is one of the reasons when saying psalms we breathe in and out as we pause at the half way point of the verse, allowing God to be the breath in our reflecting.
The second word used in the Hebrew Scriptures for the Holy Spirit means ‘fire’. Fire warms, it consumes, it gives light and the flames dance with excitement and energy. Without the fire of the sun our planet would be too cold to sustain life. Without fire our predecessors would not have had light in the darkness and this has long been a symbol of hope. The Easter Candle is itself a flame which burns to remind us of the great hope we have in Jesus Christ. Candles are often lit as signs of this hope and of prayer. Again the energy involved changes things through the reactions that take place – wood is turned to carbon and smoke, food is cooked, the flame itself is a concentration of energy which moves on.
So the two words for Spirit, ‘wind’ and ‘flame’, bring us physical elements which are energized and bring change. They freshen, enlighten and display awesome power. It is not surprising that we use them as metaphors for how the Spirit moves in us and through us. We are not called to be mere spectators as disciples of Jesus Christ, but participants who live and breathe, who shine as lights and living flames to God’s glory.
To that end, our Gospel reading ended with a surprising and somewhat confusing reference to forgiving sins and retaining them (John 20:19-23). In John’s gospel this passage comes after the resurrection; in Matthew (18) there is a similar passage during a section of teaching about the importance of forgiveness and repentance. John places a different emphasis on this. After the resurrection the work of Jesus is to be continued in and through the disciples. That work involves the calling to account and being called to account, what we call judgment. Our response to Jesus’ call brings judgment on us for in this we become known for who we really are, who we have become. There is teaching on separating the good from the evil. There are none so blind as those who will not see and the unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the decision to reject what is true over what is false. It is an outworking of where the heart and true treasure lies.
We sell our soul if we place anything other than being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ at the centre of our lives and for some power matters more than anything else. For some it is money and some it is fame or popularity. For some it is a passing pleasure where in our culture ‘now’ is what matters most; by definition a passing moment. And of that list, popularity is particularly difficult because all of us find there are times when we are scared to speak out or make a stand for justice because it will make us unpopular. I was reading this week about a former Dean of the Cathedral from the 18th century, Peter Peckard – the author of the inspirational abolitionist pamphlet ‘Am I not a man and a brother’. He admits in a sermon in 1788 when in Cambridge that he hesitated over speaking out against slavery because it meant sticking his head above the parapet, but nonetheless he found the courage to do it. He moved beyond mere popularity now for something of more lasting worth and benefit. He became a prophetic witness, shining a light of hope, fired by the Spirit of God. That fire and light shines down the centuries to inspire us as we contemplate finding courage to stand for justice and liberation in our own times.
The wind and the flame of the Spirit of God bring courage to those who are scared. And this is what happened to the first disciples. After the resurrection, at first they hid, they met in secret and it was the gift of the Holy Spirit on that first day of Pentecost that gave these men and women the confidence and bravery needed to come out of the shadows and proclaim the hope that was inside them already. That is why today is sometimes called the Birthday of the Church, the day when they found their voice. It is not the birthday; that came with Jesus calling his disciples and the post resurrection challenge to be witnesses, which we heard last week. The beginnings are in their meeting to pray and reflect on all he had done and taught. Fire in our spirits, wind and breath to move us, the Holy Spirit is the life-blood of the church’s witness.
On Thursday we will cast our vote in the General Election. At the hustings here (St John’s) a few weeks ago three of the candidates professed their Christian faith and the fourth I know has much sympathy with the heart of the gospel we proclaim. So this is not a Parliamentary Constituency in which we can claim any one party has God on their side. Each of us can ask who will bring the kind of inclusive and just society that we need. Who will lead to the flourishing of all people; not just some, or even many, or just hard workers – all rhetoric we have heard – but everyone. The Holy Spirit will call us and inspire us to live justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. And we have to work out who best represents that.
Pentecost is the feast of the life-blood of the church. It is the breath that gives life. To say the name of God – Elohim – is to breathe God in and out. We are breathed into being. It is the fire that transforms and brings light to shine. Courage in darkness is found in the confidence it beings. Witnesses are able to burn with the brightness of God’s love and hope in Jesus Christ. May that Spirit breathe on you and ignite in you the strength you need to be a living witness of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Pentecost, Sunday 4th June 2017
 Peter Peckard, DD, Master of Magdalen College Jusitce and Mercy recommended, particularly with reference to the Slave Trade. A sermon preached before the University of Cambridge Cambridge: J & J Merrill (1788) pxi. See also note at beginning of Am I not a man? And a brother? Published anonymously by Cambridge: J & J Merrill (1788)